April 24th, 1666
PHENIX - SACRED FIRE - BRENNUS
Recently founded and based in France, heavy metal band Phenix is a new name to most fans of the genre. That, though, is hopefully about to change with the recent release of the band's debut album entitled Sacred Fire. Liking what he hears and appreciating a band which stays true to the ideals of heavy metal, Ali "The Metallian" conducts an interview with the group's singer Bertrand Gramond with the result printed below. The band is rounded out by guitarists Sebastien Treve and Olivier Garnier, bassist Anthony Phelippeau and Eric who is a recent replacement for the drummer on the album Julien Giraud - 09.07.2002
Bertrand, thank you for accepting the invitation to contact Metallian Towers. Phenix is a new name and so it is logical for you to introduce the band and give an account of the history of Phenix.
Thank you for the opportunity. The band was born in the summer of 2000, but the origins are far older. Sebastien, one of the guitar players, and I met ten years ago and quickly planned that one day we would play in a metal band. As time went by, we had to cope with studies, army, jobs and other things which prevented us from building something serious, at least for years. But in late 99, early 2000, we felt the time had come for us to give it a try. At that time Sebastien, whom we call him Seb, was playing in a cover band with Olivier whom we call Ol. Seb asked Ol to play with us. Ol liked the feeling among us, decided to stay and all three of us started looking for a rhythm section. Seb and Ol met Julien at a live show he was giving with his former band and his playing amazed them. They suggest to him to join us and he agreed. Julien had been playing years ago with a bass player who was, at that time, looking for a heavy metal band. So we had a session with him and he appeared to be the musician we were looking for to complete the band. His name is Anthony or Tony and he became part of the band in August of 2000. Then, the band chose a name and Phenix was born.
Was Phenix essentially a cover act at the beginning?
We began playing many covers. We were formed in August of 2000 and played our first live performance in October 2000. One can easily understand why it was impossible to write enough original songs to build a set. So we learned various covers in order to have a show lasting about one hour. During this first concert, we already played The Endless Quest and Submarine Assault: the only songs finished at that time.
Anyway, we like playing covers. They are a good exercise to learn different things and to practice new techniques. It is also a way to pay tribute to the bands we love so much. We still include covers in our sets even if we now have enough songs to play a one hour and a half show. We play standards such as Highway To Hell from AC/DC or Burn by Deep Purple to metal hits such as Two Minutes To Midnight by Iron Maiden, The Last In Line by Dio and Whitesnake's Still Of The Night as well as many more.
Where had you met Sebastien?
I simply saw an ad. in a music shop saying 'guitar player is looking for a band. Influence: Iron Maiden.' I called him, we met and we began working together. At that time, I didn't sing! I was playing guitar. I stopped in 1999 to begin singing.
Why did your drummer Julien leave the fold?
Simply because he had the opportunity to enter a great drum school in Paris to become a professional musician. Of course, we were very glad for him, even though we felt a little anxious. To find a good drummer is really hard, above all a good drummer who wants to play heavy metal. This is not the kind of music which is popular here in France. Julien didn't let us down, however, and introduced a friend of his, a good drummer who was eager to play with a heavy band so everything was well again. Eric joined the band in September, 2001 just as we were ending the recording of Sacred Fire. We gave a first live show with him in December, 2001 in a small, but warm, club and at that moment we all knew that the Phenix will not die. We were happy with Julien and were now happy with Eric. Julien is still part of the Phenix family and each time he comes back from Paris visits us at rehearsal.
What is the name of Julien's school?
I'm sorry but I don't know its name. I will meet with Julien this weekend so I can ask him if you want.
By the way what were the former bands of the respective members called?
Olivier is the oldest in the band. Long ago he played in Aluca followed by Etheric Soul - both old school thrash bands. Then he played with Seb in Keepers - a covers-only band. Anthony was a member of Fear Experience, then Unscared, both of which were extreme metal bands. He now plays both in Aura Noire a black metal band as well as Phenix. Eric was part of Ignis Fatus a thrash/death band, but he quit it to join Phenix. Phenix is my first band ever.
Are any of the other members involved with other bands now?
Aside from Anthony and Aura Noire, a very good Black Metal band which sounds a bit like Dimmu Borgir and so on, Eric has a hardcore side project but has never played a concert with them.
Let's talk about the band name. Why the Phenix moniker? Why the misspelling?
It is not a misspelling in French. We had to face our first trial for the name of the band. Even if it seems easy to find a name, one must consider how this name will follow the band for years so it was a tricky choice. First, we thought that as Frenchmen, using an English name was not appropriate. You know, something like Metal Fuckers Of Hell or Steel Gladiators Of Fire (laughs)! However as we decided to write songs in English anyway a French moniker wouldnt fit either. So we looked for a word with universal meaning which would make sense in all - well, maybe not all, but at least many - languages. Naturally it had to be something relating to the kind of music we play. So everybody in the band made some suggestions and we had a democratic vote. Phenix was chosen. Firstly because we thought it sounded good. Secondly, people can find many meanings in the name and so we will let them have their own ideas about the moniker. For us, it is the fire and the will to last as long as possible. As for the spelling, we preferred the French one without the "O". This is also a gimmick to distinguish us from other bands.
Does your answer hint that at one point the band had completed lyrics in French?
Sorry if I wasn't clear, but no, we always wanted songs in English. That is why we didn't want a French moniker. We feel that English is the language of Rock 'n' Roll. So I never wrote a song in French. Maybe I will one day, but not for some time.
How did you find Brennus Music or did Brennus Music find you? What is your contract with them like?
Well, we decided to record our songs last year in February. We didnt have enough money and time to enter a studio and we decided to do it by ourselves. Ol' did have a little experience in recording so we all bought items of equipment and started recording several songs. In the summer, we organized a live performance with a very famous French band called Killers. We spent a lot of time with these experienced musicians and when they listened to our recordings, they suggested we should send them to their label which is Brennus Music. The label is quite famous in France. So we did it, even if we had little hope. To our surprise, Alain Ricard the label's manager, contacted us to propose a distribution deal. We were amazed and gladly accepted. We also decided to improve our recordings and to record some more material. In fact, we added all the songs we had written during the period with Julien and so we did as much as possible with our equipment and our short experience. Thats how we gave birth to Sacred Fire. Then we had the CD made and Brennus became in charge of promotion as well as the distributors' supply in France and abroad. As far as I know CDs were sent to Italy and Japan.
Given how Brennus' profile is not as high outside France as within, what can you tell the readers about them?
Brennus is quite famous here in France. It is well-known as the label of French metal, and indeed, many good bands have signed with Brennus namely Killers, Malediction, Voodoo Smile, KOB, Syrens Call, Seyminhol, etc., etc. Alain, our label manager is a really atypical person in the world of music. He is a really honest man that works with the bands for the love of music and not for money. This is why it is a real pleasure to work with him. Brennus is a part of the record company called Musea. Musea is specialized in prog. rock and metal, Brennus in hard rock and heavy metal. There are also other labels within the group namely Thundering Records for extreme metal and Rebel for AOR and US-style hard rock. They have a national distribution network and also work with foreign labels to distribute CDs abroad.
How about moving on to your album. Please discuss Sacred Fire. What were you trying to achieve?
This was in fact a way for us to make real something which seemed to be a dream. Let me explain. Playing in a band is something so fragile. Even if we have a small following, that is some people who like our music, should we stop playing today, who will remember Phenix in two years? Almost nobody of course. This recording is our way of staking a claim that says we do exist. It is also a legacy of our first year of existence and a testimony to our work with Julien. Of course, this is also a dream come true. When you are a musician, to record an album is a real achievement. It was also a way to test our music, to submit it to more people and find out what is good and what is less good. Now it's done, we can carry on, try something else, explore other directions maybe and of course improve in order to give the best to our audience.
When you speak of exploring other directions, are you referring to non-metal realms?
No, I speak about faster songs for example. We wrote a couple of very fast songs recently which are more direct with less breaks and bridges. We will still have songs with a progressive touch, but less than on the first album I think. Well, we'll see.
Speaking of a progressive touch, one notes the above average length of the songs. Is it inadvertent or does Phenix feel the length is necessary for the songs completeness?
There was no real will to write longer songs. In fact, I believe this may be the trouble with a young band. So many things to say and so little time. You know, you have many ideas, you are sure that they are all good and want to put all of them in the song and the length quickly increases. In fact, we had to reduce the length of some songs. For example, The Endless Quest lasted about fifteen minutes initially. We made it shorter, but kept the good parts we didnt use and if we record a second LP - which we strongly hope - it will feature an Endless Quest Part II. Maybe with experience, as we get older, we can better grasp what is more important and write shorter songs. You know, we already have written seven new songs, two more are in preparation, and many of them are less than five minutes. We will also have a few longer ones. In fact, we don't think in terms of length. If the song needs it, the song may last twenty minutes and it is not a problem. That is certainly our 'progressive' aspect.
Can you reveal the new songs' titles? Do you have an album name in mind?
Sure, we have already written many new songs. The Fifth Dimension is about a Lovecraft theme, Trial By Fire is a tribute to metal and the bands we love, The Last Ride is about motorbikes and driving fast and drunken. It has a sad end. Still Believe is about Love, Firewings is again about metal of course, Blood In The Arena is about gladiators, Rebellion is about the media and the politicians fooling people, The Never-ending Tale is The Endless Quest's follow-up and we are planning a song called Children of Metal. It's a good start, don't you think ?
As for the title of the next album, we don't know yet. I would like a gimmick in the titles, like having the word 'Fire' in all of them. I don't know if the others will subscribe to this idea. I shall tell them!
Who are the band's direct influences? One detects Iron Maiden and Jacobs Dream.
Iron Maiden surely yes, but we dont know Jacob's Dream - sorry. In fact, Seb is a real fan of Iron Maiden and you can feel it in the songs he writes. I don't think this is a mere copy though. Some guitar harmonies recall Iron Maiden, but that's all. Ol' likes Dream Theater and Steve Vai. I am fond of Manowar, traditional NWOBHM and German metal. It is really difficult to compare these to our sound though. Yes we like them, they inspired us and gave us the will to play this music, but I want to believe that we can have our personal imprint in all of this and that our influences didn't prevent us from being original. Also, it would be pretentious to compare oneself with so great a bands. We are just metal fans playing a music we love so much, playing with our hearts and playing for the love of music.
How about vocal harmonies? Are they a conscious part of Phenix?
What do you mean by a conscious part? I love vocal harmonies, and during recording, you can do some things you can not at a live performance. So I experimented with some of them and we kept them when it sounded good.
Who does the backing vocals, for example on Journey Through Space? Were these preplanned?
I write and sing all the vocal lines. Most of them were planned, yes. I figure out the vocal arrangements from the start, but I don't know how they will sound until we actually record them. I have a good imagination so, in general, I have a good idea of what it may sound like. During live shows, Seb and Ol' help me with some backing vocals. They are not singers, even if they like doing some backing vocals. I would like to have the backing vocals of the album on stage but no one in the band can really sing them and we refuse to use samples. You know, our concept of music live is really... hum, how would I say it? Rock 'n' Roll is the closest feeling to our shows, in attitude, the way we act and so on. Samples would kill this spontaneity.
Another feature of the band is the melodic and smooth leads. Who is primarily the lead guitarist? What is he trying to create?
Both of our guitar players are lead and rhythm. Depending on the songs, one or the other is the lead, and sometime they play answer/question duels. Each one has his style. Seb is on Endless Quest or Call from the Sky, Ol' is on Journey.., Submarine.., et cetera. Face My Fate is a song written by Seb, but Ol' plays the smooth solo on the arpeggios in the middle acoustic break. Ol' also played the heavy metal lead on The Keepers.. because he was inspired by the chords and the melody and so on. The tasks are well shared, each one has his own sensibility and according to the songs, they bring a part of themselves into our music.
There are two weak aspects to the album. One is the drumming. How do you react to the statement? I am rarely excited by the drumming on the album.
Well, in fact we were never told that. I am not a drummer, but I think Julien is quite a good musician and think he brought us some really good ideas. If you talk about the sound of the drum, OK, it is weak because this is the instrument we had the most difficulties to record. As for the way it is played, I don't think it is weak at all. I mean, Julien may not be the best drummer in the world, of course not, but I feel that he has a real talent. I can tell you that playing live, he is really amazing, skillful and visually impressive.
Another weakness is the over-all sound. Is this due to a lack of studio budget? Or perhaps you disagree?
How could I disagree? I also have ears! Even if Sacred Fire is our beloved baby, everybody in the band knows that it is no match for a recent and overproduced album. Remember that it was impossible for us to enter a studio when we decided to record it, and we didn't want to wait for years to record these songs. So we recorded by ourselves as best as we could. I think we did a really good job in comparison to our means, above all Ol' who produced the whole thing. Even if the sound is not so huge, it's not a live album either. We spent a lot of of time working on the recording of the instruments and voices and I sincerely believe that we made an album which is worth listening to. I hope people will manage to appreciate our songs beyond the production.
The music incorporates many quieter moments. Is this a permanent feature of Phenix? Perhaps you find that this is an asset for a melodic band?
This is not a permanent feature at all. At the time we started to write songs together, Seb and Ol' had written some music with cool breaks: at the end of Endless Quest, on Journey.., or on Face... I am not sure there will be so many on the next album. In fact, all six songs that are ready do not include any clear sound breaks. I think Endless Quest part II will be in the tradition of the first one, but all the other songs will be more direct, with less breaks and bridges and so on. There will not be any ballads or instrumentals either. I think the audience will notice quite an evolution, even if Phenix will stay Phenix in spirit.
Speaking of which, the track Submarine Assault is slightly different from the others. Why was that title chosen and why have an instrumental?
It is an instrumental Ol had written long before Phenix. He had written many instrumental songs when he was not part of a band and when he joined the band we listened to his tunes. We all liked Submarine and he proposed to give it to the band, so Phenix played it. It is a really technical song and the musicians like to play it. About the title? Well, Ol' says everything came from the sample of the sonar in the beginning and then the title was called for.
Let us get our heads around the lyrical concept. Is there a theme throughout Sacred Fire based around The Keepers Of The Sacred Fire? I ask because I notice you use it often.
Well, there is not a concept at all. I write the lyrics according to many parameters that vary along with the songs. The first statement for us was to keep an imaginary dimension. We want to entertain people, not to speak about politics, aids or famine. This does not mean that we don't feel concerned with these problems, but we just want to stay in the tradition of heavy metal which usually speaks about fantasy, dream and fiction. Now, as you can notice, some of our songs are about human soul affections, so this is not just fairies and stuff.
The Endless Quest was the first song I ever wrote for Phenix. It was at a troubled time for me, I was in despair with love and I had an idea for an eternal traveller who has seen all the beauties in the universe but still looks for something else. It's about dissatisfaction. Journey Through Space came to me as I listened to the ethereal middle break. I found it light, spatial and floating. So I wrote a sci-fi song, using all the clichés. Call From The Sky is about destiny. I don't remember how I thought about the theme. The Other Side is about life after death, a song full of melancholy but full of hope too. We dedicate it to our absent friends. Keepers is the kind of song I love to write: heavy metal basics with the words metal, fire, thunder, might, fight and so on. This is not intellectual, but is metal for sure. It is about the music we love so much and about all the metalheads who listen to it. This is our tribute to our beloved music. Face My Fate speaks about trying, hoping, moving forward with no regret, always being active and not passive. This is a really positive song, surely relating to our state of mind when we began with Phenix.
As for Sacred Fire, this is the will to keep metal alive although many musical styles which try to wipe it away. Metal is not a fashion, it is real, it is true, it is strong. We really love music, and metal is the style which is the most important for us. We try to keep the fire burning by playing metal, and the song is about all the people who are involved in metal, the fans, musicians, and everybody who is part of the metal life. All of them, all of us are the Keepers Of The Sacred Fire, and the fire still burns. Forever.
What is the name of the person for whom you wrote The Endless Quest? Are you still hurt?
No, it does not hurt anymore. We are now friends. We still meet from time to time. She is now in love with a cool guy who is also a musician and a friend of mine and I am about to marry a wonderful woman so everything is OK. Let us just call her 'the first real love.' You know what they say: 'the name has been changed to protect the innocent' and so on.
Moving from the music to the cover art, one can note how the album's cover art is unusual. What were you trying to convey?
You can find many elements of Phenix's universe there. At the back, you will find the space from Journey Through Space and The Endless Quest. In the front, a volcano is spitting out molten rock in bursts of flames. In the middle, you will see the personification of The Keepers Of The Sacred Fire, still hooded but already armed with a steel sword and releasing the phoenix which is taking flight as pure energy. A friend of ours created the artwork. We liked it when he showed it to us because it included many parts of the imaginary world we were beginning to create with our music. So we kept it for the cover and we are really happy with it.
How about talking a little about France? What are the disadvantages and advantages of being French?
France is not a metal country unfortunately. I mean, there are just a few metal fans around here. On the contrary, all the bands that can play in France are always really happy with the audience for being warm, singing all the songs and screaming a lot. We are a select few who listen to metal in France, and it's really difficult for us smaller bands to find places to play our music. When you are not a big band supported by a company, it's really difficult to play at halls. More and more clubs don't want to have metal shows. They prefer disco parties or karaoke things, you know? So we have to struggle to survive. Fortunately, there are some metal lovers who still help the bands play. We also have some good bands emerging now and maybe some of them will succeed in being known abroad. It seems that there is a mistrust of French bands in other countries, and I dont really know why.
Consumers, in general, are easily swayed by the media. The French government and media perceiving other priorities while promoting French culture have disregarded metal in favour of Francophone culture. The lack of publicity and the language barrier has impeded the French scene which should have otherwise rivalled any other country. Still, thanks for the above which is interesting information. Yet can you more specifically speak about your region of France.
Oh! I see! You wanted me to talk about the area where we live. Then, it's in the east of France, a few kilometers from the Swiss border. We live close to the Jura Mountains and not so far from the Alps. We are two hours south of Strasbourg, the European capital. It is a cold place in the winter, warm in spring, hot in summer, and rainy in autumn. Eighty kilometres from where we live is a small town which is famous as the coldest town in France. It is called Mouthe and is usually minus forty degrees centigrade in the winter - Just as in Canada, isn't it? Around our city, Montbéliard, the countryside is hilly and wooded. This is a really nice place, not far from the mountains. In the nearby mounts of Jura, you can practice cross-country and downhill skiing. Near Montbéliard, the town of Sochaux is known for its Peugeot automotive factory which is the biggest in France and maybe in Europe. Our region is also known for it's food: Montbéliard and Morteau sausages, Comté and Mont d'Or cheeses, and the wine of Jura.
Staying with France, there has been much discussion recently about the fresh right wing tendencies in France. Can you comment and opinionate please?
Well, as I told you, Phenix does not want to get into politics. But anyway, what is sure is that there are some real problems in France namely unemployment, insecurity, taxation, et cetera, but the extreme right wing does not hold the key to solving them. By the way, as you know, the so-called nationalists were easily defeated and this is a good thing for France and also for us and our music.
The best consequence is how people are motivated to participate in the democratic process. Democracy requires involvement and activity as it does not run on auto-pilot. If so, the recent events could have only enriched democracy. Do you care to opinionate in this context?
Yes, you are right. I think that people are more and more manipulated. In fact, they have the feeling that they are often fooled and so they turn away from politics and this is the threat. The extremes, right and also the left wing, never stop mobilizing. I am afraid some people have latent interests in all of this - but who really? politicians? I am not so sure - dulling of the mind of the people in order to dominate them. Media participates in this lowering of the knowledge. They now play the part that religion played two centuries ago. This is also the theme of our most recent song Rebellion.
You are right when you say that democracy needs involvement and activity. What is funny is that, in general, the first persons to complain about things are the ones who did not vote.
Anyway, democracy may have been enriched by the recent events, but at the same time, it is a real warning to the politicians and I don't know if something good will come out of this. I hope so. Wait and see.
What are the latest news and developments within the band? What has been going on since the albums release?
It is probably too soon to tell about the effects of the album release. Well, I hope it will open some doors for us and maybe the opportunity to play with well-known bands. Our aim is to play farther in France and not only around our area.
Now that we have completed and released Sacred Fire, we know what we want and what we don't, so we're working hard on a new album and plan to release it in 2003. We 'll keep the fire burning!
For further information on this French quintet please either visit www.phenixmetal.fr.st or point your browser to www.musearecords.com where you will find the band's record label.